The Green Bay Packers capped off a magical 2010 season by recapturing the Lombardi Trophy. With a new NFL season on the horizon, the reigning Super Bowl Champions hope to defend their title and return to Football's Biggest Stage in 2011.
Here are five players who will be absolutely critical to a Packer repeat in 2011.
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One of the primary reasons the Green Bay defense was effective in 2010 was the play of the Packer linebackers. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is one of the most creative minds in the game and he's had a full offseason to find new and ever-more innovative ways to use his fearsome foursome.
The Packers know the secret of Clay Matthews is out (and it has been out for awhile). Coordinators and coaches will be game-planning against him more than ever before. Capers will be creative with how he uses the Thor look-alike, but he's going to need someone else to step up. A.J. Hawk is a solid inside linebacker with a diverse skill set, but the book is out on him, too. Erik Walden and Frank Zombo (now injured) will provide some support from the right OLB spot, but neither are true game-changers.
This is where Desmond Bishop comes in. If he can play up to his potential, the Packers' defense will be flat-out terrifying. Bishop is already known around the league as a ferocious tackler who knows how to get into the backfield and cause mayhem. His coverage skills improved in 2010, but there is still some work to be done. If he can put it all together, improve his coverage skills and pick up a few blitzing pointers from Matthews, the Packers could have one of the best linebacking tandems in the NFL.
One of the most impressive features of the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl title was the fact that they did it without two-time 1,000 yard rusher Ryan Grant and, instead, with a relative unknown in James Starks.
This time around, things won't be quite so easy. The NFL is a copycat league. Opposing coordinators have been working for the past eight months on new ways to stop the Packers' five-wide and spread offensive sets. Some of the Packers' tricks may still work, but it's a good bet that quite a few have been figured out.
The key for this season is Grant (and to a lesser degree, Starks). If the Packers continue to spread teams wide but now have the option to run draws, screens and reverses through Grant, opposing defenses will be forced to play honestly. That should open up Driver, Jennings, Jones and Finley for QB Aaron Rodgers.
Grant's return is key for another reason: he can grind out tough yards. The Packer defense, as dominant as it was during parts of 2010, did occasionally show signs of wear and tear. With a solid running game headlined by the duo of Grant and Starks, Green Bay should be able to keep their defense resting on the sideline. The less time the opposition has to work, the more intense the pressure from Dom Caper's defense can become. That can only mean good things for the Packers' repeat hopes.
Well, this is cheating the assignment ever so slightly. While the offensive line isn't one player, all five men must work as one for the unit to have success.
The Packer's offensive line last season was middle-of-the-pack, for the most part. OG Josh Sitton and LT Chad Clifton were both stellar, C Scott Wells improved his overall game quite a bit and youngsters T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga were serviceable.
However, things will be different this season. Opposing coordinators will be attacking the Green Bay offense in a host of new ways. There will be new looks, ever-more confusing and well-disguised blitz packages, never-before-seen twists, stunts and rushes. The goal of most of those packages will be to physically pound QB Aaron Rodgers into the ground.
The only thing stopping them will be the Packer offensive line. If the unit plays the way they did last season, Rodgers won't make it to Thanksgiving without injury. This group, as a whole, must elevate their level of play significantly. They MUST be better.
It's no secret the Packers' defense starts with the secondary.
Former Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson is Green Bay's Mr. Everything—he stops the run, defends the pass, causes chaos in the backfield, forces turnovers and somehow still finds time to cover a receiver.
However, the only reason Woodson can do all of that (and hence, why Dom Capers can do everything else that he does) is because fellow CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are playing lock-down defense on the opposition's outside receivers.
It all starts with the secondary. If Williams or Shields falters, Dom Caper's brilliant defensive schemes will fall like a house of cards.
Aaron Rodgers is the straw that stirs the Packer's drink.
On and off the field, he is one of the leaders of the team. He's the guy that makes the Packer offense hum like a well-oiled machine. He's probably one of the top-three quarterbacks in the league right now and he's the primary reason the Packers will likely make a repeat appearance in the NFC Championship game this season.
There really isn't much else to say; everyone in the NFL is aware of Rodger's prowess with the football in his hands. He has one of the strongest arms in the league, the ability to throw pinpoint passes to either side of the field, the vision to see the open receiver before he gets a step and the ability to extend the play with his legs.
Quite simply, he's the guy the Packers need more than anyone else if they hope to repeat. He's the guy that can turn lemons into the sweetest lemonade. He's the one player that takes this team from "playoff-caliber" to "Defending Super Bowl Champions".